ESPN: Evidence shows something terribly corrupt in infamous match

02-08-2008, 05:57 PM
A rather long ESPN Special Article on the betting issue. Didn't read it fully but what little I read reminds me of a cheap thriller novel.

EDITOR'S NOTE: For nearly four months, ESPN's Enterprise Unit has investigated what could go down as the most notorious match in tennis history, the Aug. 2 match in Sopot, Poland, between Nikolay Davydenko of Russia and Martin Vassallo Arguello of Argentina. In reports for and ESPN's "Outside the Lines" (airing Sunday at 9:30 a.m. ET on ESPN and at noon ET on ESPNews), ESPN reconstructs how the match unfolded, reveals confidential information from the investigation conducted by the men's tennis tour of the wagering on the match and presents an accomplished gambler's conclusions on whether the match was fixed. Also, in the upcoming issue of ESPN The Magazine, ESPN takes a look at the ATP's response to the tennis gambling scandal.

The Super Punter

Mark Bell studies his computer screen, his slightly furrowed brow reflecting a quiet intensity entirely appropriate for the decision he is about to make.

On this day, as Bell visits with ESPN in a London betting shop, Barcelona, with its Brazilian superstar Ronaldinho, is hosting Stuttgart in a Champions League soccer match; and Bell is looking for action, scanning the odds on the British gambling Web site Betfair. He types quickly, flicks his wrist, clicks the mouse and -- just like that -- wagers nearly $140,000 on Barcelona, the heavy favorite.

This is typical for Bell, a professional gambler who risks more money on a single sporting event than most people make in a year.

Normally, Bell works from his office above the Elitebet trading room, sandwiched among the cramped storefronts of Highgate in North London. But on Aug. 2 of last year, Bell instead chose to work from his home in the quiet southeast London suburb of Mill Hill.

That day, he had his eye on a tennis match.

At 2 p.m. London time, Bell logged on to Betfair, as he does every day, to monitor the second round of the Orange Prokom Open. The world's No. 4 player, Nikolay Davydenko of Russia, was taking on No. 87 Martin Vassallo Arguello of Argentina.

It didn't take Bell long to realize this would not be an average day of betting online.

"Everyone was texting me and calling me, saying, 'Have you seen what's going on?'" Bell recalls.

Under normal circumstances, the match, being played 800 miles away in Sopot, Poland, barely would have registered on any gambler's radar, least of all that of someone like Bell. But something was amiss.

"Davydenko, prematch, should have been a massive, overwhelming favorite, with his opponent being a clear underdog, yet the odds didn't reflect that at all," Bell says.

Eventually, more than $7 million in wagers on the obscure match poured into Betfair, many of them against Davydenko, the tournament's defending champion.

Davydenko defenders claim his body takes a beating. For the third straight season he played more tournaments (30) than anyone else in the top 10.
"[Davydenko] became an underdog, a bigger underdog to lose the match, despite winning the first set," Bell says, characterizing the betting pattern as "unheard of in any tennis match prior."

Bell would know. At 27, he is what the Brits call a "super punter," the colloquial term for very successful gamblers. In a place where betting on sports over the Internet is both legal and a big business, he is riding a remarkable winning streak. Wagering on horse racing, soccer, tennis, darts and even some snooker, Bell says he has averaged nearly $2 million in gambling profits the past three years.

Tax free.

Unlike the IRS in the United States, the British government doesn't tax punters on their winnings.

The Exchange
Even before the first serve in Poland, concerned Betfair customers began dialing the company's call center in Stevenage, about 40 miles north of London. A record number of postings from anxious account holders flooded the Web site's members-only forum.

"We've got 40 to 50 thousand pairs of eyes on the site at any given time, and everybody was saying, 'There's something wrong here,'" Betfair managing director Mark Davies says.

Betfair is what is known in the online gambling industry as an "exchange." Launched in June 2000 by former professional punter Andrew Black and former J.P. Morgan vice president Edward Wray, Betfair represents a marriage of Internet sports betting and day trading. Unlike conventional gambling sites, where bookmakers set the odds, Betfair allows the punters to set their own odds and to bet at any point during play. The company simply matches up gamblers who agree to take opposite sides on bets.

A super punter like Bell, who risks tens of thousands of dollars, might bet at several different points during a sporting event, depending on how the odds shift, and go up against hundreds or even thousands of other Betfair customers, who each risk far less money.

Betfair wins, regardless of which punter prevails, keeping commissions of 2 to 5 percent of the winners' shares.

"We're like a stock exchange for bets, because we're putting people who have one view together with people who have the exact opposing view," Davies says.

Tennis currently ranks third in betting volume on Betfair, behind horse racing and soccer. For example, the company matched $60 million in bets on last year's epic five-set Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

But even the growing popularity of tennis betting couldn't explain the developments of Aug. 2, 2007.

"I think it's clear that somebody knew something," Davies says. "I don't think there's any doubt about that.

"[Davydenko] was winning comfortably, showing no signs of injury, and there was talk on our forum that something was going to go wrong, the wheels were going to come off somehow."

The Money Trail

Betfair and the Association of Tennis Professionals, the governing body of the men's tour, citing concern for an ongoing investigation, won't comment on specific details of the wagering. But information obtained by ESPN from a confidential ATP report reveals a massive concentration of betting by just a few Betfair account holders registered in Russia.

Professional gambler Mark Bell knew something was amiss by the abnormal wagering -- somewhere in the neighborhood of $7 million.
The report was compiled by Mark Phillips, a former bookmaker now employed as an investigator with the British Horseracing Authority, who was hired by the ATP to analyze the betting patterns on Betfair. According to the Phillips report, three Russia-based Betfair accounts risked a total of more than $1.1 million on Vassallo Arguello to win the match, despite the fact that, at the time, he was ranked 83 spots lower than Davydenko and never had won an ATP singles title.

Before the match began, according to the report, the Russian Betfair account operating under the username "Djults" wagered $540,942 on Vassallo Arguello to win the match. Then, just 15 minutes into the first set, with Davydenko leading 2-1, that same account holder added to the bet on Vassallo Arguello, this time backing him as a 1-7 favorite.

"To back a lesser player at 1-7 when his opponent was winning the match and appeared to be playing well showed a totally unrealistic level of confidence that [Vassallo Arguello] would win this match," Phillips wrote.

Referring to the specific bet, Phillips added, "This suggests the account holder was aware that the match would not be played to completion."

Phillips estimated that for Vassallo Arguello to trade on Betfair as a 1-7 favorite, he would have had to be leading Davydenko by a set and a service break. But Vassallo Arguello was down 2-1 when the bet was made, and he would go on to lose the first set 6-2.

According to the Phillips report, 24 minutes into the second set, the Russian Betfair account operating under the username "SgeniA" wagered $368,036 on Vassallo Arguello to win, backing him as a 1-5 favorite, even though by then, Davydenko was up a set.

"To place a bet of this size is highly suspicious," Phillips wrote.

Then there was the wagering by the account registered in Russia under the username "RustER."

The Phillips report states that between September 2005, when the "RustER" account opened, and April 2007, the account's average bet was just $814. But on Aug. 2, with the Sopot match even, the "RustEr" account wagered $253,833 on Vassallo Argeullo to win, backing him, at one point, as an overwhelming 1-11 favorite.

An unsuspecting bettor logging onto Betfair at the time of the last "RustEr" wager would have found Davydenko, the player who should have been the favorite, trading as a surprising 11-1 long shot.

When contacted by ESPN, Phillips would not comment on his findings. But he wrote in his report that he had never seen so much money wagered on such highly suspect odds.

The Investigation

Bell, the super punter, followed the heavy betting against Davydenko and soon was convinced he was on to a sure thing. So sure, he bet $60,000 on Vassallo Arguello, backing him as a 1-10 favorite.

Bell stood to win only $6,000 on that $60,000 bet.

At ESPN's request, Bell reviewed both Betfair's general betting patterns and the confidential information about the Russian accounts contained in the Phillips report.

Martin Vassallo Arguello's lone win over a player ranked in the top 40 last season was versus Davydenko in Sopot.
"I'm certain that from the betting patterns I was privy to, this match was 100 percent fixed," Bell says.

Davydenko eventually retired from the match in Sopot after trailing Vassallo Arguello 2-6, 6-3, 2-1, and later blamed a stress fracture in his left foot for his early exit.

Normally, Betfair would have paid Bell and everyone else who bet on Vassallo Arguello to win, once Davydenko withdrew. But at roughly the same time Davydenko was preparing to walk off the court in Sopot, defeated, managers at Betfair were struggling with a decision unprecedented in the company's seven-year history. Acting on the advice of its risk and integrity unit, the company decided to void more than $7 million in wagers on the match.

Just before 4 p.m. in London, not quite two hours after the Sopot match began, the thousands of bettors who had logged on to Betfair to follow a remarkable afternoon of tennis wagering all received the same message in bold red type: SUSPENDED.

"We said, 'Look, the betting doesn't appear to be fair,'" says Betfair's Davies. "That is a very, very long way from saying that we think that something is inherently corrupt in either of the players or in the match. It means that the betting wasn't fair."

Betfair and the ATP have an agreement to share information on suspect betting, so the gambling company immediately contacted the tour. Two days after the Sopot match, the ATP launched a formal investigation into the betting.

The tennis world hasn't been the same since.

Several players have come forward in the past six months with stories that they have been offered money to throw matches. Amid the fallout, Davydenko has become the headline figure in a full-blown betting scandal. He told ESPN, through an interpreter, that he never has been approached to fix a tennis match.

"I don't know how to throw a match," Davydenko says. "I know that if you are in pain and can't play on, you withdraw."

Davydenko adds that he has no knowledge of the Russian account holders who wagered so heavily against him.

Since early August, his camp has been highly critical of the way the ATP has conducted its investigation.

"What has happened here to Nikolay is just incredible," says Davydenko's attorney, Frank Immenga. "From the first day, he was pushed into the corner and treated like a criminal."

Says Ronnie Leitgeb, Davydenko's manager: "For me, the interesting thing was that immediately it was called 'The Case Davydenko.' This is really what did a lot of damage to Nikolay."

For its part, the ATP has had to strike the delicate balance of investigating a highly unusual betting pattern without unfairly indicting one of the sport's premier players.

"We never at any point mentioned Davydenko and went to great lengths, in fact, to stress that nobody should mention any player because their reputations were at stake," ATP executive chairman Etienne de Villiers says.

"[Davydenko] is a player, whether he is guilty or not, who deserves due process," de Villiers adds. "He deserves to live by something we all live by, which is, 'We are innocent until we are proven guilty.'"

ATP investigators have interviewed Davydenko, his wife, Irina, his brother Eduard (who also is his coach) and his opponent that day in Sopot, Vassallo Arguello.

"I don't think the investigation is going to show that Davydenko was involved in anything," Vassallo Arguello says. "Everything that happened on the court seemed very normal to me."

The Player

Reflecting on the day in August that changed his life, Davydenko recalls that when he stepped onto the red clay at the Orange Prokom Open, he was tired and had a nagging pain in his left big toe.

Known for playing one of the most grueling schedules on the ATP tour, Davydenko, by early August, was on a nasty losing streak. In the three tournaments leading up to the Sopot match, he suffered consecutive first-round losses, all on clay, all against lower-ranked opponents. Davydenko says that beyond his family, the only person he told about his sore foot prior to the Sopot match was ATP trainer Christiaan Swier.

There was no sign of trouble on the court for the world's fourth-ranked player through the first set. He easily won it 6-2.

But early in the second set, Davydenko began receiving treatment on his left foot. With his shoe off, shaded from the August heat by an umbrella, he winced as Swier massaged the base of his left big toe.

"I asked him … even during the second set, 'What will happen with my foot? Will it get worse or not?'" Davydenko says of his conversations with Swier as he was being treated between games. "He could not give me an answer."

After retiring from his Aug. 2 match, Nikolay Davydenko competed the next week in Montreal, reaching the quarterfinals.
As for the unusual betting patterns on Betfair and the heavy wagering on his little-known opponent by the accounts registered in Russia, Davydenko says gamblers might have noted the struggles he had in prior matches and perhaps also had inside information about his injury.

Davydenko's attorney, Immenga, questions whether Swier somehow tipped gamblers to the player's injury.

"Who knows what he really knew about this, you know?" Immenga says. "He could have told about five or six people to bet money."

"I didn't talk to anybody," Swier says. "There's nobody who came up to me and said, 'Is he injured or not?' But I don't know. The training room is not a closed environment."

Swier acknowledges that he, too, has spoken with ATP investigators, but he referred all other ESPN questions to an ATP spokesperson. According to an official injury report from the Orange Prokom Open, Davydenko's foot pain was due to "overuse during match play."

Davydenko's manager, Leitgeb, says that a week after the match in Poland, at the Rogers Masters tournament in Montreal, Davydenko was diagnosed by an ATP doctor with a stress fracture.

"I do have evidence that I was injured," Davydenko says. "That's why I couldn't finish the match."

The ATP won't comment on Davydenko's medical condition. But it appears, from his record on the court immediately after the Sopot match, that he recovered fairly quickly. The week after retiring against Vassallo Arguello, Davydenko beat two players ranked in the top 30 at the event in Canada, the same event where Leitgeb says Davydenko was diagnosed with a stress fracture.

Two weeks later, Davydenko was healthy enough to make it to the semifinals of the U.S. Open before he lost to Roger Federer.

Bell, the super punter, questions Davydenko's explanation of the events in Poland.

"I think that's a very lame attempt to create a smoke screen over the truth of the matter that he was never going to win that match," Bell says.

To Bell, the real story is in the Betfair marketplace, where odds shift and players rise and fall like commodities on a stock exchange.

"The bets that were being placed on the exchange reflect a level of surety way beyond any kind of guessing about this injury being an impediment," Bell says. "These bets were, 'I know something you don't. Please match me.'"

Adding to the intrigue in recent months have been unsubstantiated rumors that Davydenko might have connections to Russian organized crime. Davydenko dismisses them as "ridiculous" and "laughable."

"It's 2007, and there is no mafia in Russia," he says.

Leitgeb points to the fact that Davydenko moved to Germany at age 12, saying, "He's more German than Russian."

Immenga says that if the Russian mafia were somehow blackmailing or extorting his client, he would have told the ATP months ago. Instead, more than six months later, Davydenko remains under a cloud of suspicion in the minds of many tennis fans.

"I want them to know that I am not guilty in this matter, that in fact I am clean," Davydenko says.

He adds that he is angry the ATP investigation has taken so long.

The ATP responds by pointing out that Davydenko's ongoing refusal to turn over the phone records of his wife and brother has delayed the outcome of the investigation. Davydenko released his personal phone records to investigators in early December.

"[The ATP] made it a very public investigation," Leitgeb says. "So at the end of the day, they have to come out with a statement, because they cannot just leave it in the air."

The central question is whether Davydenko, or anyone in his inner circle, has a connection to the people who wagered so heavily on him to lose to Vassallo Arguello.

"We need to connect the dots," says the ATP's de Villiers. "Certain bets took place at certain times. Certain people placed those bets. We need to try and connect those dots. Were they related? How were they related?"

Privately, those close to the ATP investigation say the gamblers who had their huge wagers voided by Betfair likely made a killing by betting on Vassallo Arguello to win either on other gambling Web sites or the old-fashioned way -- with bookies.

While Betfair and the men's tennis tour won't comment on specific details of the investigation, Betfair says it has a general "know your customer" policy and so knows the identities of the people who open accounts with the site. Davydenko, though, says ATP investigators told him they have come up empty in pursuit of the Russia-based accounts.

"[The investigators] say that accounts are in false names and it's very difficult to find out who they are," Davydenko says. "They say that the bets were definitely placed in Russia, but they don't know exactly from where or what."

De Villiers says the tour will devote as much time and money as necessary to find out what really happened in Sopot, but after more than six months of investigating, his confidence is tempered by a sinking reality that the outcome might remain unclear.

"We may never know," he says. "We may get to the point where we think we know, but we can't prove it."

John Barr is a reporter and William Weinbaum is a producer for ESPN's Enterprise Unit.

02-08-2008, 06:32 PM
yada yada

for those who wont bother reading it, there's nothing more than what's been discussed on MTF zillion times

02-08-2008, 06:47 PM
yada yada

for those who wont bother reading it, there's nothing more than what's been discussed on MTF zillion times

True, but this article at least presents it in a coherent manner, rather than the scattered posts in GM from which you have to filter out the nonsense (or rather, where you have to filter out the useful contributions from the copious amount of blah).

02-08-2008, 06:49 PM
True, but this article at least presents it in a coherent manner, rather than the scattered posts in GM from which you have to filter out the nonsense (or rather, where you have to filter out the useful contributions from the copious amount of blah).

true, but i guess 90% of the posters here are fed up with this issue

I was just doing a social service for those who were doubtful about reading this or not ;)

02-08-2008, 06:49 PM
BTW Among many players there is absolutely no doubt that Davydenko is a fixer. At the Alphen Challenger last year a group of players (Zovko, Cervenak, Azzaro) were laughing at the betting habits of Russian players, and Kolya in particular.

02-08-2008, 07:24 PM
Betfair says it has a general "know your customer" policy and so knows the identities of the people who open accounts with the site.

This isn't quite true, as has been proven by this case, betfair has been very reluctant to verify accounts because they are afraid of losing revenue. Only for the Australian tournaments does betfair require identitity verifications due to a legal requirement with an Australian license.

02-09-2008, 12:18 AM
Thanks for the article. I know the focus is on Davydenko because he's the one who decided the outcome of the match, but hasn't Vassallo Arguello been involved in a number of suspected "fixes"? I remember seeing a list once of the most controvercial and his name came up like 5 times (however I don't remember where I saw the list).

02-09-2008, 12:28 AM
Nothing really new there, interesting to see that an accomplished gambler felt like betting on a match believing that a fix is on. In my mind, a rational person would just abstain under such circumstances, basically because you can never be sure what type of fix has been arranged. It is similar to gambling in a casino where you believe that the house has rigged the play. Better to enjoy the special on the buffet and the free drinks.

It will be very hard to find hard proof of PMK's guilt, Betfair is like stock exchange, it takes bids from agents that could very well be hidding behind an investment company. For example, GWH and Deivid might very well set up "Merton Investment Services" and hire Jaap and Dylan to execute trades. There is no way for betfair to determine who are the true principals behind Merton Investment Services.

Action Jackson
02-09-2008, 12:32 AM
Look the ATP haven't handled this well and they need to come up with a conclusion to this investigation and not some kangaroo court decision either.

02-09-2008, 12:35 AM
Look the ATP haven't handled this well and they need to come up with a conclusion to this investigation and not some kangaroo court decision either.

They cannot come with a kangaroo court thing, PMK would sue them to death. I think that they will need to announce at some point that they could not come with positive proof about Davydenko's involvement.
02-09-2008, 12:46 AM
Ivanovic had her period around the time of the Aussie open women's final, that's why I bet on Sharapova.

Inside info, some people have it, some don't...

02-09-2008, 01:16 AM
BTW Among many players there is absolutely no doubt that Davydenko is a fixer. At the Alphen Challenger last year a group of players (Zovko, Cervenak, Azzaro) were laughing at the betting habits of Russian players, and Kolya in particular.

Who cares? They're challenger players who don't matter.

02-11-2008, 01:10 PM
Here is the video of the story

02-11-2008, 02:09 PM
Thanks for the article. It is nice to see all the information in such a structured format.

02-11-2008, 02:25 PM
Here is the video of the story

nice. I watched it on SportsCenter last night. It's lengthy but very interesting for those who haven't seen it; especially for those of the gambling variety.

02-11-2008, 02:27 PM
Watered down info a la moldy ham sandwich on a hot sunny afternoon. Comprised specifically for the casual fan to skim and forget 10 minutes later.

02-11-2008, 02:49 PM
Wow, 4 months of investigation and they tell little new plus they can´t get the correct amount of accounts that were investigated and closed after this. What a bunch of jerks

02-11-2008, 05:01 PM
100% fixed, but 100% they wont find any proof

02-11-2008, 05:32 PM
Leave Kolya alone :sad:

Action Jackson
02-11-2008, 11:50 PM
100% fixed, but 100% they wont find any proof

Pretty much.

02-12-2008, 12:11 AM
The only thing they proved is that someone made a big bet. We already knew that.
Davydenko retired, and the trainer there thought he was injured.
So nothing happened besides a big bet. The Super Bowl had thousands of big bets on it.
Someone making a big bet means nothing unless you find out who it was and why they bet it.

02-12-2008, 12:16 AM
Thanks for the post! That article was amazingly intriguing!

02-14-2008, 03:48 PM
There's a second part to this story that profiles so-called "gambling king" Martin Fuhrer, how he started making millions betting on tennis, and his relationship with Irakli Labadze. Very interesting to read.
The man who makes the tennis world nervous

The gambling parlors along Vienna's Laxenburger Strasse are hungry for customers tonight. A few die-hard punters stand in the rain, peering through steamy windows for the luck that may linger inside. A man in a tight-fitting leather jacket stands on a dimly lit corner beneath a sign he hopes will entice some of them his way. Wetten ist geil. Betting is sexy.

Inside his shop, Bet Paradise, a half-dozen grim-faced gamblers smoke unfiltered cigarettes and sneak peeks at the curvy Serbian cashier as they keep track of various games and matches on flat screens that hang on the wall. Martin Führer, the man in the leather jacket, taps his long fingers impatiently, waiting for them to fill out their betting slips. The pressure of running his own parlor has begun to crease his 30-year-old face. He misses his old life, the one he spent as a party boy on the pro tennis circuit, where his exploits earned him a nickname that would be his undoing: The Gambling King.

Führer was everyone's friend, a former model whose looks and live-for-the-moment manner opened doors. The ATP Tour was his NASDAQ. He studied picks in intimate detail, and to do his research, he paid his own way to tournaments from Miami to Monte Carlo. He hung around players' hotels and lounges, got himself invited to the right meals and parties. What began as $100 bets quickly became $1,000 ones. Before long, $10,000 was the norm. But even as Führer kicked back in players' lounges placing bets on his mobile, no one seemed to care much about the fact he'd become one of the heaviest tennis bettors in the world.

The fun ended on May 18, 2004, when Führer won roughly $23,000 on an obscure ATP event held about 40 miles outside Vienna. An Austrian gambling firm immediately froze his bet, accusing Führer of conspiring to fix a match. Since then, he's been poison to bookies; no one will take his action. That's why he has put his savings into this parlor on the edge of the red-light district.

Führer drops onto an empty stool in front of an "Always Hot" video-poker machine. He scans the room, waiting for a Monday night straggler to get an itch. From here, he's also watched the world's fourth-ranked player, Nikolay Davydenko, get drawn into a controversy eerily similar to his own. Last August, a London betting company voided nearly $7 million of bets after Davydenko unexpectedly withdrew from a match he was winning in Poland against an also-ran.

Davydenko denies any wrongdoing, but the episode exposed a world apart from the glitz and glamour of big-time tennis, in which vast reservoirs of international cash move on obscure matches. The biggest events on the tennis calendar are the four Grand Slam tournaments. Roughly $30 million was wagered on the Australian Open final in January -- much of it while the match was in progress. The Slams also account for most of the championship points that are awarded on the Tour. (Novak Djokovic received 1,100 points for his win Down Under.) But the life blood of professional tennis is the 65 tournaments the ATP hosts each year.

These far-flung events give unsung players a chance to move up the rankings ladder. But because the early rounds are usually played away from the cameras, they have become prime entry points for a gambler who wishes to insinuate himself. After the ATP hired Scotland Yard investigators to launch a probe into the Davydenko affair, a dozen top players stepped forward to say they'd been approached about throwing matches while on public practice courts, in players lounges, even in hotel rooms.

Just a few weeks ago, on Jan. 8, two Scotland Yard policemen were hired as part of a new anti-corruption unit. "Nothing is more important than the integrity and honesty of the sport," says ATP chairman Etienne de Villiers. But Martin Führer's story shows that ATP officials knew they had major problems three years before the Davydenko match and took their eyes off the ball at exactly the moment Führer was making his boldest bet.

In a one-bedroom apartment across from a Vienna park, Führer waves off any suggestion that his access to the back rooms of the tennis world made him unique. "What makes me special? Nothing. I'm a normal guy."

Führer's gambling career began innocently enough, after his brief career as a department store model faltered. Newly married, he took a clerk's job with one of the many betting parlors in the Austrian capital and began to spend part of his paychecks wagering on his favorite sport, tennis. He'd scan the ATP's website and devour as many newspapers as he could. Soon, the wins were piling up and Führer got the itch to see how far his luck would take him.

Over the next two years, he expanded his reach, driving to tournaments throughout his country and in neighboring Germany. He'd hang out in lobbies of the players' hotels, which he found on the ATP's website, and he got to know Tour regulars by becoming a familiar (handsome) face. Some of those he grew close to offered him one of the two credentials that each player gets for an event. And, like that, he had access to places in which overheard talk of a sprained ankle could be turned into cold cash. "The tour is a big family," Führer says. "Everybody knows everybody and would help everybody."

Eventually, he made enough at his hobby to start flying around the world, hitting 20 tournaments a season. One of Führer's mantels holds photos of him hugging his wife in Dubai and the two mugging in Times Square. In 2003 and 2004, Führer bet more than $2.5 million on at least 200 matches.

One of his favorite betting targets was Irakli Labadze, a 6-foot-2 southpaw from the Republic of Georgia. Labadze had moved to Austria after going pro in 1998 and was still trying to crack the top 50 when Führer started to befriend him. "I watch his practice," says Führer. "I have lunch with him after. If I meet him at a tournament, he asks me, 'Would you like to go to a cinema?' We watch a movie, have dinner together."

As Führer paints it, their association sounds innocent enough, but some players were wary of Labadze. Justin Gimelstob, an 11-year veteran who retired last year, remembers being pitted against him at Wimbledon in 2003, when Labadze had such a serious shoulder injury Gimelstob says he wondered why his opponent even bothered to show up.

In a recent interview on Russian TV, Labadze, a 26-year-old with a 49-81 career singles record, acknowledged knowing Führer. But Führer uses cold logic to explain why he would make money betting against a friend.

"Labadze is not the best player," he says, pointing out that the Georgian knew the odds were often against him. "If you bet against him, you will win very, very much money."

Mark Cridland, a tennis expert who runs an Australia-based gambling site called On The Punt, says the growing presence of big-time gamblers like Führer was obvious by 2002, but tennis officials were slow to react.

"The players had free rein and suspicious matches just kept happening," he says.

Bookies, of course, had the most to lose; they were the ones paying out on those matches. So a small group of them began to keep track of events they considered suspect, attempting to determine which players attracted unusual betting patterns. Not every match on their list involved a fix. Odds can move for simple reasons, like when a player shows up noticeably hurt at a public practice. Still, the oddsmakers began to look at some ATP pairings as if they were evaluating pro wrestling matches; their outcomes appeared that scripted.

"It was getting out of control, even at that stage," Cridland says.

None of this was widely known by a public that was wagering more than ever on tennis, thanks to a new member of the gambling scene called Betfair. A traditional bookie sets odds then sells them to willing customers. Betfair is much different. Like a gambling version of eBay, Betfair pairs people who are willing to offer odds with those willing to take them. The site has customers in 100 or so countries, although not in the United States -- at least, not legally; the U.S. bars Internet gambling.

"When you include Betfair, the turnover on individual matches can be as much as $60 million," says Cridland. "When betting is so big, any information about injuries or player motivation is gold."

In 2003, Führer wagered more than a million dollars with Betfair. He'd log into his account from a computer in the business center of a players' hotel or call an associate from the players' lounge to place bets for him. According to Gimelstob, it was easy for unsavory characters to blend in behind the scenes.

"How am I supposed to know who the friends of an Argentine player are when I barely know the player himself?" he says. "It's chaos."

Führer is almost blasé about the access.

"If I saw an injury, I'd call a friend and he bet for me online," he says. "But I saw many people betting in the players' lounge."

On Sept. 23, 2003, anyone sizing up the draw for the Sicilian Championships in Palermo would have picked Labadze to win. The 84th-ranked player was up against Italy's Tomas Tenconi, then-ranked 225. But an unusual amount -- $362,741 -- was put on Labadze to lose. The amount was six times that played on any other first-round match.

Bookies were on alert before the first point was contested in Palermo. Several called the ATP to complain that the odds were whipsawing against the favorite, as if someone knew what was about to happen. The chair umpire took the unusual step of warning both players to play hard. But once the match started, Labadze seemed listless and remained so even after a second warning. His straight-set loss earned him a $7,500 fine for lack of effort.

"The problem with Labadze was that he's a total nut case," says an ex-ATP staffer. "One day he can play like Pete Sampras. The next he can't beat his neighbor."

That's one explanation. Bookmakers had another.

Five months into the 2004 season, Führer climbed into his BMW and drove the 40 miles outside Vienna to the industrial town of St. Pölten. A small tournament was underway, and the fourth-seeded Labadze was scheduled to play a first-round match against an unseeded Austrian, Julian Knowle.

"I saw him practice two hours before the match," Führer says. "It was too hot for him. He was sweating. I thought, He cannot beat Knowle."

On the tournament grounds, Führer went to a booth owned by Cashpoint, a betting outfit whose black-and-yellow signs are familiar on the streets of Vienna, and he placed a bet with a clerk for 10,000 Euro ($11,968) on the underdog. Führer was so sure of himself he boasted that he might as well collect the money right there. He also chided a friend for considering a bet on Knowle to win in straight sets. Another Cashpoint clerk who knew about Führer's relationship with Labadze overheard him say, "Are you mental? You have to bet him to win two sets to one."

The clerk called her boss, who, knowing of Führer's penchant for betting on Labadze to lose, had instructed his employees to reject any of his wagers. Outraged to learn a bet had been accepted, the manager ordered it voided. When Führer returned to the booth following Knowle's three-set win, the clerk refused to pay out his winnings.

"They talked to me like I was a criminal," Führer says. So in June 2004, Führer sued Cashpoint for his money and forced a match-fixing allegation into a courtroom for the first time in the sport's history.

Eager to prove its case, Cashpoint charged that "an attempted betting fraud" had occurred and asked the court to compel Labadze's testimony. But in early 2005, the Georgian said he had no intention of taking time away from his busy schedule.

"These accusations are complete nonsense," his agent told reporters.

As a last-ditch effort, Cashpoint lawyers wrote to the ATP. Did anyone there have anything that could help their case?

The request found its way to Richard Ings, then the ATP's vice president of rules and competition. Ings had recently traveled to London to ask Betfair execs for access to their vast database. He proposed that the firm alert him every time they detected a sudden shift in the odds, and he requested details to help investigate those shifts, such as when and where bets were made. Eager to stay scandal-free, Betfair pledged to cooperate.

Ings wasted no time running Führer's name through the database. Führer, it turned out, was one of Betfair's largest tennis customers. The strange thing was that so much of his action seemed to be on Labadze to lose. At the Palermo match in which Labadze was fined, Führer stacked more cash against the player than anyone else.

Ings called Labadze to ask about the relationship, but the Georgian was vague. Sure he knew the gambler, but that didn't mean they fixed matches.

Führer says Labadze phoned him the day after that conversation. "I said to him, 'Sorry, what can I do? I bet against you and won.' He said, 'Okay.'"

But Ings wasn't convinced.

"We had little pieces of the puzzle," he says. "We just didn't know what they meant."

On May 24, 2005, Ings sent an email to Cashpoint's lawyer, spelling out what he'd learned. In particular, he listed five 2003 matches that contributed to the $45,000 Führer had made on Betfair by wagering against Labadze. In each of them, he wrote, "Mr. Führer took unusual positions placing bets at almost any odds on Labadze to lose." Ings cautioned that before Cashpoint's lawyers used the information in court it needed to be confirmed and approved by his bosses. "The ATP does not want to compromise its sources as our inquiries continue," he wrote.

Two months after Ings pressed the send key, he left the ATP for a higher-profile job in his native Australia as head of its new anti-doping agency. But before clearing out of the ATP's Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., headquarters, Ings wrote a report that urged his colleagues to keep an eye on the Führer suit.

"It is an important test case," Ings recalls writing, "the first time anyone has gone to court to challenge the relationship of a player and a gambler."

The report went to the ATP's chief executive, Mark Miles, but by September 2005 Miles was gone too. It is unclear if de Villiers, the ATP chairman, ever saw the report. (The ATP would not answer questions about the report.) The tour's general counsel, Mark Young, didn't even know Ings had written to Cashpoint until he was shown the email last month.

A Cashpoint lawyer, Martin Paar, says he tried to follow Ings' instructions to get approval from the ATP before using the explosive email about Führer in court. He says he reached out to ATP officials "three or four times." But whether by oversight or design, no one called back.

"It seemed a little strange," he says. "First, we got a lot of information. Then everything stopped."

Paar asked the judge in the case to appoint someone to get the answers he couldn't. But the expert, Klaus Zotter, fared no better. In a report to the court obtained by ESPN, Zotter wrote that he called the ATP and was "informed that, relating to my inquiries, no further information was available any longer." ATP officials insist they have no record of any approaches to their top staff. But Paar says he was left with the distinct impression that after Ings left, "there was no interest anymore in this case."

Last August, with the Cashpoint case still pending, Nikolay Davydenko walked onto a court in Sopot, Poland. His opponent was the 87th-ranked Argentine, Martin Vassallo Arguello. Davydenko won the first set easily, 6-2. Fans saw nothing unusual in Davydenko's early lead, but Betfair executives in London did. More than $7 million had been laid on the match, at least a fifth of which came from nine Russian customers. All of them had picked Davydenko to lose. So when he dropped the second set before withdrawing in the third with a foot injury, Betfair took the unprecedented step of voiding all bets on the match.

Young, the ATP's general counsel, insists his organization wasn't caught unawares by the incident.

"It didn't wake us up from a powerful sleep," he says. "It didn't shake us into sudden activity. We've been on top of this."

He blames the slow pace of investigation on the vague nature of gambling cases. "People see the same incident six different ways," he says. "No one has hard evidence."

But by this past September, evidence seemed to be everywhere. Djokovic, the world's No. 3 player, told reporters that he'd been offered £110,000 (roughly $200,000) to lose in the first round of a 2006 tournament in St. Petersburg, Russia. Although representatives for Djokovic later backed off the statement, de Villiers reacted by saying he was taking "any form of corruption extraordinarily seriously."

And yet, ATP officials appeared not to know of the Cashpoint decision made that same day until ESPN told them about it three months later. The judge had ruled it was "a well-known fact in betting office circles that there existed a close connection among [Führer] and the tennis player Labadze." But with no concrete evidence of a fix, and no further testimony from the sport's governing body, she had to find for Führer.

So it was that, last Sept. 24, with the ATP already investigating the allegations against Davydenko, the Gambling King collected his sweetest payday ever: $25,353 in winnings plus 4% interest and $13,419 in court costs.

A worldwide television audience of more than a billion people watched Djokovic take the Australian Open on Jan. 27 with booming ground strokes and pinpoint serves. But as long as the rank-and-file build their careers in places like Sopot, Poland -- and as long as gamblers know where to find them -- the shadow of corruption will dog the ATP. By the time the tour passed an emergency rule last fall that required players to report suspicious contact within 48 hours, the bookmakers' secret list of questionable matches had ballooned beyond 140.

"In Austria, it's a new experience to try to prove a tennis match is a fake," says Paar, Cashpoint's lawyer. "We tried everything, but in the end we lost for lack of evidence."

Watching Davydenko get dragged ever further into the gambling investigation, Führer is relieved his own case is over.

"I am not a criminal," he says, sounding like the wounded victim. "Why this big story? Just because I bet one bet on a tennis match and have this luck and won?"

Führer, of course, insists the evidence that Paar seeks doesn't exist. He says he's just a hard-working guy who used every tool available to him to make a buck. Well, every tool but one: "I never spoke with Labadze about tanking a tennis match for money."

As a new season gets rolling, Führer has a hankering to get back out on the circuit. "I have many friends there," he says. But he also knows he's too high-profile to pass unnoticed. Anyway, his friends are older now. "They probably just want to drink a glass of red wine and go to bed early."

So he'll stay at Bet Paradise, hoping none of the dour-faced chain smokers at his tables have access to the kind of inside information he once did.

02-14-2008, 04:14 PM
Very interesting article. Thanks Tangerine_dream :wavey: